Photo: Alex Yun for Lausan

The shifting sands of an anti-authoritarian union movement

The new union movement can flourish by moving beyond traditional conceptions of unionism

Original: 【浮沙下的真象:活在極權下新工會的角色】, published in Stand News

Translators: White Fish & 翡翠廢青

The author thanks his friends for helping to draft the title and subtitle for this piece and LSM for reviewing the draft.

If you would like to be involved in our translation work, please get in touch here.

Editor’s note

Political pressure and mutual distrust have unfortunately become widespread within workplaces and organizations. Finding our place and how to be in community with each other amid these tensions, hence, has become an urgent issue. Leo Tang, an organizing officer of the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions, believes that the goal of the new union movement is to create a “parallel polis” so that workers and citizens can live a moral life under authoritarianism. To this end, pro-democracy organizations operating in civil society under Hong Kong’s faux-liberal system (港式虛擬自由主義) need to break out of its usual single-issue approach. Traditionally, different interest groups pursue their agenda in isolation from one another, culminating in a division of labour in civic advocacy. Tang also responds to the proposal from the Construction and Engineering Union’s Liu Jun-ping and other unionists for an “industry-focused civil society network” (行業為基礎的公民社會網絡). Tang likens the network to Poland’s Solidarity union, which de-emphasized the “labour movement” as the central domain of struggle and focused on constructing a space to link up with citizens who are willing to act against the regime.

2020 in Hong Kong was a year of crisis and decay. The COVID-19 pandemic has presented the government with the golden opportunity to enforce allegiance to the regime with various authoritarian measures. Different government bureaus eagerly demonstrated to Beijing how the National Security Law (NSL) has effectively exposed and expelled those in Hong Kong who are disloyal and a threat to “national security.” The timely imposition of the NSL has provided the state with the means to counter such dangers and dissolve 2019’s surge of anti-authoritarian sentiment. Not an insignificant number of commentators have incessantly pointed out the ostensible stupidity of Beijing’s approach, which would only accelerate the erosion of Hong Kong’s special status and do more harm than good for China. Simultaneously, they decry Hong Kong’s top government officials, in their enacting of Beijing’s decrees, as fools bringing ruin to their own fief. However, these observations fail to account for the new rules of the game facing Hong Kong’s government officials: deploying the NSL to neutralise movement participants and protect the party’s interest is the only way to go.

Having advocated for laam chau—to see Hong Kong accelerate towards a costly demise—still leaves us tormented by contradictory feelings. The “blue ribbons” (the pro-establishment and pro-police camp) query: “Isn’t this exactly what you asked for?” In a way, this is what we wanted: if we burn, you burn with us; if the government denies us freedom and democracy, then we will reject the institutions and systems that this illegitimate regime has to offer. We are only forcing ourselves and our enemies to reckon with the reality of living under authoritarian rule: Hong Kong’s unique socio-political system since the handover is a piecemeal indulgence bestowed to Hong Kong people by Beijing; whatever space for freedom and civil liberties there had been, and still remains, was a house built on shifting sands at the mercy of Hong Kong’s overlords.

The necessity of moral life under authoritarianism

Caught between the pincers of the pandemic and laam chau, we must acknowledge our individual insignificance and impotence. Emigrants are expected to depart in droves, sapping much potential for mass mobilization in the future. The “Four Great Mountains”—the legal, medical, journalism, and education professions—have become targets of repression, exerting immense pressure and creating an atmosphere of intense fear, experienced by each individual.

We understand that, given the current situation, Hong Kong’s “acceleration towards demise” is inevitable. We nevertheless cannot bear to see our vaunted institutions fall away; we feel an urge to still defend them and what remains of our way of life, yet feel even more powerless to do so. A significant number of Hongkongers hope that US-China tensions would ameliorate the situation in Hong Kong, while others have quoted Václav Havel’s entreaty to ‘live in truth” as individuals considering what they can still do while living under authoritarian rule.

Vagueness abounds in these two approaches: should we equip ourselves while patiently awaiting the opportune moment, or should we seek to “live in truth” through the long night of Hong Kong’s demise? Many scholars of totalitarianism have pointed out that the heavy-handed suppression of dissent we witness now is merely part of Beijing’s long game: not only does Beijing want to silence opposing voices in Hong Kong through repression, but it also wants to produce a docile, self-interested, morally degenerate citizenry who would snitch on their neighbours (篤灰) at the slightest hint of defiance. That’s the hallmark of a truly totalitarian, rather than merely authoritarian, system. Thus far, we have seen mostly top-down repression. However, soon we may see everyday citizens “collaborating” with the state to turn out their peers. This is another step towards what Hannah Arendt calls an “atomized society” in a totalitarian regime.

As Hong Kong’s descent into totalitarianism continues, the most pressing task facing the pro-democracy movement today is maintaining morale, and simultaneously, creating conditions of mutual trust and solidarity in different social circles and spaces, so that those who continue to resist the regime would not fall into a state of isolation and alienation.

The focus, hence, has to be on the cultivation and sustenance of Hong Kong’s civil society. The concept of a “parallel polis” (平行國度) advocated by Václav Havel and Václav Benda directs dissident masses to construct collective grassroots spaces outside of the regime. These spaces serve to create and sustain solidarity. They also enable people to engage in acts of mutual aid and protection so that they won’t fall victim to the regime’s attempt to engineer total control over society. These spaces are crucial for everyday citizens who want to safeguard collective memories, maintain morale, demand the truth, and live a moral life outside of the regime.

Social spaces outside of the regime

Since the colonial era, Hong Kong civil society has operated under the parameters of faux-liberalism. Groups grew accustomed to making their own space for work and focusing on their respective causes, such as gender, labour, land, and politics, in ways that isolated them from one another. This mode of single-issue advocacy has long been mainstream, and has resulted in not insignificant reforms and concessions since the handover. There is, however, a lack of intersectionality between these disparate struggles. Although individual organizers may know one another on a personal basis, there has been little cross-sector coalition building (or maybe they tried and failed). As advocacy for social causes becomes more specific and esoteric, it becomes separated from the public and the shifting sentiments of the pro-democracy movement, and even more alienated from the interactions between the communities supposedly represented by these sectors.

However, the mass struggle of the past year saw many social contradictions and antagonisms play out; it was not the product of narrow political causes, as some “leftist” scholars claimed. It is impossible to divide intersecting social issues in this movement into singular topics. At the same time, single-issue advocacy that predates last year’s mass movement has been able to intervene to varying degrees, lending their resources and expertise to the struggle while retaining a distinct identity within the movement—for example, the assembly organized by and for mothers, and the #ProtestToo rally that echoed #MeToo against gender-based violence. But this kind of intervention was different from the past’s; the multifaceted nature of this mass mobilisation could be said to have formed the basis of a new kind of civil society.

An ‘industry-based civil society network’ needs to make itself visible to the public, link up with the various nodes of the democracy movement, and play a key role in wider civil society

Prior to the 2019 protest movement, there was space for civic advocacy organisations to cooperate and work with the government on specific social issues, occasionally resulting in policy reforms. This phenomenon will likely become much rarer under current circumstances as government repression intensifies, and single-issue advocacy will quickly become obsolete. Soon after, the “international standard” that informs local advocacy work may also lose its significance and influence.

We ought to focus on creating a “parallel polis” in order to sustain Hong Kong’s civil society. Analyses of successful pro-democratic movements in other countries tend to focus on the serendipitous convergence of events that led to liberation. Meanwhile, other analyses take a more personal lens to highlight how individuals maintain their political and moral convictions amidst repression. Less discussed is the impact that the strength and texture of civil society have on the outcome of the movement, and indeed what it means for the movement to win.

South Korea and Indonesia overthrew authoritarian regimes and democratized in the late 1980s and 1990s respectively, but the nature and scope of their journeys towards transitional justice differed drastically. In South Korea, democratically-elected governments that succeeded military dictator Chun Doo-hwan’s regime reinserted the Gwangju Democratization Movement into the dominant historical narrative. The new government also tried Chun Doo-hwan. Unlike most dictators who were never held accountable, Chun was indicted for crimes he had committed. Conversely, the Indonesian military that backed Suharto’s regime and crushed the student movement remains a powerful force in Indonesian politics, and retains a presence in the current government. The criminal investigation that eventually led to Chun Doo-hwan’s conviction was not the result of the South Korean state wanting to uphold “international standards” on law or justice. Rather, it was the result of overwhelming pressure and scrutiny from South Korean civil society and the citizenry, who prevented officials in the newly-democratic regime from quietly pardoning their predecessors or colluding with the moneyed class. Not only is the “parallel polis,” existing as a social space outside the authoritarian regime, able to protect and nurture the morals and principles of the movement in the face of state repression, it is also key to the maintenance of the collective memory of past struggles and possibilities of mobilization.

The worst of times: a new labour subjectivity

I had the chance to read Liu Junping’s article, “Post-Strike Referendum under the National Security Law: Reflections and Ideas on the Local Labour Movement,” which proposes that the new union movement should establish an “industry-focused civil society network” to sustain the momentum of the democracy movement. This union network can complement and enrich community networks—maintained through the likes of District Councils—by connecting the public with issues that workers across different industries face. Put differently, in addition to cultivating a relationship between unions and members on industry-related issues, we must also foster a connection between these sectoral topics and the wider public.

An industry-focused network is one that takes heed of the developments within each industry, as well as how they affect employees’ rights. Throughout the pandemic, new trade unions have been uncovering problems that workers have been facing in order to expose the deficiencies of the government’s labour policies. In doing so, the new unions have, consciously or not, found their “calling.” This is a much needed development—after all, organizations that emerged from the anti-extradition protests have rarely articulated movement demands alongside workers’ grievances with their workplace conditions.

Another aspect of the “industry-focused” approach centers on intersecting issues that connect the industry with larger societal concerns. They may include developments within and across different industries locally, the maintenance of professional standards, and the informal and formal ways in which workers can exercise agency within their workplaces. Together, these socioeconomic issues can help establish a relationship between trade unions, the public, and employees located in different industries, creating the potential to reveal more social contradictions.

Furthermore, as an industry-focused “civil society network,” it should extend beyond the confines of “industry.” Political commentator An To describes the Polish Solidarity union as a “comprehensive cultural, social, educational, and action center.” The union did not accept the “civil societal division of labour” by privileging workers’ rights and interests as the central domain of struggle. Rather, it constructed a space to link up with citizens who were willing to act against the regime. Hence, the union was able to carry out industrial actions and address other issues in the democracy movement in a synthesised manner.

Hong Kong’s new unions resemble a prototype of the Polish Solidarity union. For instance, the strike undertaken by the Hospital Authority Employees Alliance was at once a labour dispute and a political action. Many unions have also spoken out about professional ethics in their respective industries. Others have organized pro-democracy exhibitions during the pandemic, and the June 20 referendum on the NSL was an attempt to mobilize across unions.

To sustain an industry-focused civil society network, it is necessary to create closer ties among trade unions. It doesn’t take a centralized coordinating platform to do so. Instead, an industry-based civil society network needs to make itself visible to the public, link up with the various nodes of the democracy movement, and play a key role in wider civil society. Union members can also participate in the “parallel polis” in which the network is embedded. They can involve themselves in cultural affairs, and instill in people the integrity to live a life that is not morally compromised by the repressive regime.

This “parallel polis” of course extends beyond trade unions. Even so, unions remain significant as they are able to connect to the layperson living under an authoritarian regime beyond the purview within which trade unions traditionally operate. They therefore invite more people to participate in the discussions about how to transform Hong Kong.

If we are concerned about what the layperson can do under an authoritarian regime in this moment, then we must determine that the most important task of the new unions is to refrain from being solely concerned with building a traditional labour movement. This is not to say that those who still insist that trade unions should expand their reach by fighting for the right to collectively organize, dispute, and bargain are wrong; rather, their priorities are not aligned with the exigencies of the current conjuncture. The time is ripe for Hong Kong’s labour movement to reinvent itself and flourish by moving beyond traditional conceptions of unionism. It is exactly when the old rules of engagement have collapsed that a new labour subjectivity can emerge. No longer can the labour movement wait for the political system to improve before it expands its reach.

That said, it is not that we should stop advocating for labour rights as they are traditionally conceived, but that any action should be evaluated according to the potentialities and constraints that the circumstances allow for. We can’t simply orient and steer ourselves with this rigid equation: that “trade unions equal the fight for labour rights.”

Can people approach the current accelerationist moment with equanimity and persevere through the long night? This is a problem thrusted upon every pro-democratic pillar of civil society. It is also certainly something that the new union movement needs to wrestle with.

Penned at Tung Tau Correctional Institution
22 October 2020

Leo Tang is an education officer of the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions. He is trying to construct a union network outside the existing framework, and cherishes all the aspirations of and encounters between movement activists.


An To: “If you can’t think independently, how can you exercise independent thought?” (11 October 2020, Mingpao)

Liu Junping: “Post-Strike Referendum under the National Security Law: Reflections and Ideas on the Local Labour Movement” (6 December 2020, Stand News)

Chan Yuen Yung Sherry: “Between Silence and Expression: Many remain silent in the gray area, but how can we render silence valuable? (16 September 2020, Initium)